The Grimke Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
I had never heard of the family named Grimke…and neither have you, I’ll wager. Which is odd and unfortunate because, as this first class narrative demonstrates, few four-generational families in our history have a claim as strong as theirs to being the epitome of the American story. This is the point author and advocate Mark Perry makes in the “Author’s Note”—
“…the story of the Grimkes, the most prominent interracial family in our history, is the story of a single family, not of two separate families. Moreover … in recounting the Grimkes’ history, we recount the history of this nation in its purest form….”
This Grimke story covers more than 200 years and parts of four generations, from the birth of the first in 1752 to the death of the last to 1958. The family, of course, extends further in both directions; but this book focuses on John Grimke, the wealthy 18th century land and slave owner of Charleston, South Carolina, through three of his children (Sarah, Henry, and Angelina) and two grand children through Henry (Archibald and Francis) to the obscure death of his great granddaughter Angelina (daughter of Archibald) in 1958.
The family began as prosperous and powerful and deeply enmeshed in the slave culture of the American South. John Grimke’s precocious and devout daughter Sarah marched to a different drummer, though; and her discontent with the slave economy prompted her to abandon the South, taking her younger sister Angelina with her. Along the way she abandoned the Episcopal heritage of her family, first, for
Presbyterianism, and then Quakerism, and finally into a Christian faith and practice for which she found no organizational home.
Sarah and Angelina together, each in their own way, became nationally known advocates for emancipation of the slaves. Their reasoning extended wider and deeper, taking them into the front ranks of those advocating for worker rights and female rights. As Perry writes: “The abolitionist movement was about slavery, certainly, but it also attracted the hopes of all the nation’s marginalized populations and provided a forum for the disenfranchised of all classes” (124).
Thus, these first two featured generations of Grimkes involves them in the great commercial, humanitarian and moral issues of their times (and ours). When they finally met their nephews Archibald and Francis, their engagement with the issues even of our time became even more prominent. Perry describes the scene: “They looked so much like Grimkes and they acted just as she expected Grimkes to act: they were intelligent, articulate, polite, and kind, as her brother [and their father] Henry had once been. They were his sons, her nephews, and they could not be rejected, disavowed, or ignored. No, Angelina decided; they must be embraced. They were Grimkes. They were family” (230).
They were also black. Or at least partially black. Their father Henry, brother of Sarah and Angelina, had taken a slave woman as his lover and together had birthed and raised three children. These two young men came North, one to become a lawyer, the other a minister, and both to careers of enormous influence. For decades they were at the forefront of advocating and organizing for the civil rights of the black population, including (finally, in 1920) the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Along the way, they had dealing with so many of the famous names of the era, including William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Dwight Weld (whom Angelina married), Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. De Bois, and Ida B. Wells among others.
Finally, Archibald’s daughter Angelina Weld Grimke rode her talent and family contacts into the literary world, publishing the first novel of what would later be named the Harlem Renaissance; she named it Rachel and published it in 1915. She died “after years of self-imposed obscurity … in New York City” in 1958. Nobody knew who she was for her last decades.
And for all seven decades of my life, I certainly did not know who she was and who she was connected to and why it is all important. Here is a family that, over time, made the transition from Southern slave owners to Northern advocates for the freedom, the rights, and the responsibilities of all people. It is the kind of journey many Americas need to make, indeed, that is urgent for the whole nation. As the events of this past year have made clear.